Texas A&M Aggies: Jonathan Stewart

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
10/25/13
11:45
AM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The words "youth" and "inexperience" are frequently used to describe the Texas A&M defense this season.

The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.

Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).

For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.

The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.

But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.

In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.

One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.

So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
  • In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
  • The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
  • The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.

Revisiting Texas A&M-Alabama, part I

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
1:40
PM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M shocked the college football world when it went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide last November. It was a game for the ages, with the Aggies jumping out to a 20-0 lead, Alabama charging back to make it close and a nailbiter finish that included a turnover near the goal line.

With the Crimson Tide coming to Kyle Field for a rematch with the Aggies, anticipation has built throughout the offseason. The Tide are again No. 1, defending their BCS championship from a year ago and the Aggies still have their linchpin, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made his most compelling case for the trophy that afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

As the heavily hyped clash approaches, let's look back at some of the keys to last year's game and how they might affect the rematch.

1. Credit to the Texas A&M defense

When dissecting Texas A&M's upset of Alabama last season, many cite the Aggies' offensive explosion en route to a 20-0 first-quarter lead as one of the most difficult things for Alabama to deal with. And while the Aggies used creative playcalling and personnel packages, their fast pace and precision execution to score three touchdowns on their first three drives, the Aggies' defensive effort had as much -- or more -- to do with their ability to take that kind of commanding lead.

A.J. McCarron
John David Mercer/US PresswireAJ McCarron threw his first interceptions of the season in Alabama's loss to Texas A&M last season.
The first play from scrimmage helped the Aggies set the tone as Alabama handed off to running back Eddie Lacy on an off-tackle play to the left side. Tight end Michael Williams motioned to that side of the formation to help open a hole for Lacy, but Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter eluded Williams and sliced into the gap between Williams and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and made a strong tackle to stop Lacy for no gain. Alabama went three-and-out on that drive and punted.

The Crimson Tide's next offensive drive started on a much better note for Alabama, with Lacy gaining 23 yards on his first two carries. But everything halted as the Aggies created a turnover when quarterback AJ McCarron tried to find Kenny Bell in the middle of the field. As a McCarron pass hit Bell in the chest, safety Howard Matthews delivered a hard, clean hit to Bell, who dropped the pass. Porter was there to intercept the pass, and that set up the A&M offense with great field position after a 16-yard return to the Alabama 41.

One of the key players throughout the day for the Aggies' defense was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. A former defensive end who moved to defensive tackle at the start of the 2012 season despite lacking what would be considered "SEC size" for a tackle, Nealy played an integral role in the Aggies' run defense. Evidence of that was on display at the start of the Crimson Tide's third drive of the game.

On the first play of the drive, Alabama handed off to T.J. Yeldon on the left side and the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Nealy, who lined up at nose tackle on that play and for much of the day, used his quickness to beat center Barrett Jones and tackled Yeldon for a loss of 4 yards. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out on that drive as well as the Aggies forced McCarron's hand with a safety blitz and Matthews got into the backfield untouched, forcing an incomplete pass. The defensive effort by the Aggies forced McCarron to start the game 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards.

And even though the Tide were able to gather their bearings and make a strong comeback with some big plays on offense, the Aggies still found ways to make plays on defense. Matthews plugged a gap on third-and-2 when Yeldon tried to cut back for first-down yardage, holding the Crimson Tide to a third-quarter field goal. Safety Steven Terrell stripped Yeldon in the fourth quarter on the play after a 50-yard pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper. And of course, cornerback Deshazor Everett picked off McCarron on the Tide's final offensive play with 1:36 remaining.

The drawback for Texas A&M in the rematch is that many of the above names are gone. Nealy, Porter, Terrell and other key players -- such as defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Jonathan Stewart -- have graduated. They've been replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have taken their lumps in the first two games. The Aggies also haven't had their full complement of defensive players because several served suspensions in the first two games. Saturday will be the first opportunity for all of their key guys to play together this season.

Lacy is gone for the Tide, as are several offensive linemen. The Tide struggled in that area in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. So there will be adjustments on both sides with the differences in personnel.

2. Finding the "Y"

Manziel went to receiver Ryan Swope, the "Y" receiver who lines up in the slot on the right side of the offensive formation, early and often against the Crimson Tide. Early in the game the passes were of the short, quick variety, hitch routes that gained incremental yardage, almost like running plays.

Ryan Swope
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRyan Swope, a senior last season, made 11 catches against Alabama.
As the game wore on, Manziel went downfield to Swope, who made some of the biggest catches of the season. One was in the middle of the field for 28 yards as he was nailed by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the third quarter. In the fourth, Manziel found Swope down the right sideline for 42 yards.

Swope graduated as well, but look for the guy who made the catch on the play after Swope's 42-yard reception -- Malcome Kennedy -- to be a factor. Kennedy caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on the next play and having experience in a game like that can only help him this Saturday. The question is, can Kennedy bring the kind of consistency that Swope did in catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown against Alabama?

And should he be healthy for the game, 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones could be a factor at that position as well. Seals-Jones missed the Sam Houston State game last Saturday with a knee injury.

3. McCarron can scramble, too

While Manziel is known for his scrambling, McCarron showed he has good mobility as well.

McCarron isn't nearly as fleet of foot, but he did show the ability to escape pressure and make quality throws. On two instances in the Crimson Tide's first scoring drive, he evaded the Aggies' pass rush and found Cooper for a first-down completion.

In the second half, McCarron scrambled and tried to find Cooper. He avoided an interception from Everett (who was ruled out of bounds on the catch), but nevertheless, scrambling is a tool McCarron can use if the Aggies dial up extra pressure Saturday.

4. Defending Manziel on the ground

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave MartinJohnny Manziel had great success running in the first half against Alabama, but the running lanes closed a bit in the second half.
In the first half last year, Manziel was electric with his feet. Then-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was comfortable in calling designed quarterback draws. They were successful as Manziel piled up 82 yards on nine first-half carries.

But the Tide did a much better job containing Manziel in the final two quarters. In the second half, he finished with 10 rushing yards on nine attempts.

This season, Manziel is making an effort to improve as a pocket passer without taking away his playmaking ability. The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator and playcaller (Clarence McKinney) and a new quarterbacks coach (Jake Spavital). It will be interesting to see how much running Manziel does Saturday and how Alabama handles it.

5. Big plays in the Alabama passing game

Cooper, now a sophomore for the Tide, had a huge game in last year's matchup, catching six passes for 136 yards.

He had a catch of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception, both in the fourth quarter. The first came on an out-and-up, when he beat Everett one on one. The next one came when the Aggies sent Everett on a cornerback blitz and Cooper beat Matthews deep for a touchdown.

Texas A&M season preview

August, 5, 2013
8/05/13
2:39
PM ET
Today, we're looking at Texas A&M as the Aggies try to expand on their success in their first season in the SEC.

Coach: Kevin Sumlin (46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)

2012 record: 11-2

Key losses: OT Luke Joeckel, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart, WR Ryan Swope

Key returnees: WR Mike Evans, DB Toney Hurd, QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi

Newcomer to watch: RB Brandon Williams

[+] Enlargejm
Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun/LandovThe Aggies' season will hinge on quarterback Johnny Manziel's eligibility.
Biggest games in 2013: vs. Alabama (Sept. 14), at Ole Miss (Oct. 12), vs. Vanderbilt (Oct. 26), at LSU (Nov. 23)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The status of quarterback Johnny Manziel. Looming over the Aggies is the NCAA investigation of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, about whether he accepted payment for signing autographs. There's concern whether his eligibility for the upcoming season will be affected. If it is, the Aggies would have to turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis at quarterback.

Forecast: If Manziel is cleared of any wrongdoing, then the Aggies are legitimate SEC West, SEC championship and perhaps BCS National Championship contenders. They'll likely be favored in every game except their home matchup against Alabama on Sept. 14, and perhaps the game at LSU on Nov. 23, one of the two teams they lost to last season.

Aside from Manziel, the biggest on-field questions for the Aggies are on defense. Three of their most productive players from 2012 -- defensive end Damontre Moore, and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart -- are now in the NFL. The Aggies are young and inexperienced in the front seven, and the status of two starting defensive backs (cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven) are still to be determined after offseason arrests.

Still, with the return of Manziel, leading receiver Mike Evans and three offensive linemen, the Aggies have the offensive personnel to compete with any team in the country. They proved as much in their upset of eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season. If the defense can make the kind of strides it did a season ago, when the Aggies had depth questions and concern about size up front in a line-of-scrimmage league, then Texas A&M can seriously contend.

If Manziel's eligibility is affected as a result of the NCAA investigation, the Aggies have no quarterback on the roster who has started a college game. Joeckel and Davis will battle it out in training camp. While the Aggies can be a good team without Manziel, dreams of reaching the highest heights will be severely limited if he is forced to miss more than two games.

Texas A&M Aggies spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
5:30
AM ET
2012 record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 6-2 (tied for second, West Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Texas A&MTop returners

QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, DT Kirby Ennis, OLB Steven Jenkins, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews

Key losses

LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, WR Ryan Swope, DE Damontre Moore, OLB Sean Porter, MLB Johnathan Stewart, FS Steven Terrell

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Johnny Manziel* (1,409 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel* (3,706)
Receiving: Mike Evans* (1,105)
Tackles: Damontre Moore (85)
Sacks: Damontre Moore (12.5)
Interceptions: Deshazor Everett* and Steven Terrell (2)

Spring answers

1. Johnny Football: The Aggies are in the rare position of returning the previous season's Heisman Trophy winner. Heading into his sophomore season, Texas A&M is hoping that quarterback Johnny Manziel can be even better than he was a season ago. This will be his second year in the offense and for quarterbacks who have played in this system, year two is typically a season in which they progress significantly as passers. That's one of Manziel's primary goals, even though he'll still run when the time calls for it. As long as he's healthy and playing well, things bode well for the Aggies.

2. Experienced secondary: Last season, the defensive backfield was young and inexperienced. This fall, there are still young players back there, but it is the most experienced unit on the Aggies' defense. Three of the four starters in the secondary from the AT&T Cotton Bowl are back: Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris and Howard Matthews. Junior Floyd Raven has moved from cornerback to free safety and appears to have the skill set (range and tackling prowess) to fit into the position well.

3. Loaded backfield: The Aggies have four good options in their offensive backfield for Manziel to hand off or throw to. Starting running back Ben Malena returns, as does Trey Williams, who returned kicks and received carries as a true freshman. Add to the mix a pair of transfer backs who sat out last season, Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) and the Aggies have a quartet that gives them a multitude of options.

Fall questions

1. Front seven: The Aggies are looking for someone to replace the production that third-round NFL draft pick Damontre Moore brought last season. Moore led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks a year ago. Also, with two senior leaders gone from linebacker (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) Texas A&M not only has to replace the bodies but also the leadership. Because of injuries, the Aggies were thin up front in the spring but when all their key players return in the fall, it will ease at least some of those concerns. Keep an eye on names like defensive end Julien Obioha (who started opposite Moore last year), defensive tackle Alonzo Williams and linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have a chance to see their contributions increase significantly this year.

2. New receivers: Only one starting receiver returns from last year's squad: Mike Evans. Four of the top six players in receiving yardage are no longer on the roster, including second-leading receiver Ryan Swope. So who will Johnny Manziel throw to? Keep an eye on guys like Malcome Kennedy, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown against Alabama last season, Derel Walker, who had a strong spring game, Edward Pope, who was a star on the scout team when he redshirted last year and a host of recruits from the 2013 class like Ja'Quay Williams and ESPN 150 duo Ricky Seals-Jones and Sebastian LaRue. Developing other reliable pass-catching options is critical, so keep an eye on how they use the tight ends with newcomer Cameron Clear (6-7, 270) on campus.

3. Kicking game: One player who fans kept a close eye on this spring was kicker Taylor Bertolet. In his redshirt freshman season, the strong-legged kicker struggled with consistency, hitting just 13-of-22 field goal attempts and missing seven point-after attempts. With a new special teams coordinator (Jeff Banks) who has college punting and kicking experience around to guide him, the Aggies are looking for an improvement from Bertolet this fall. Also the Aggies are working in a new punter, Drew Kaser, who takes the reins after senior Ryan Epperson graduated.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M wrapped up spring football on Saturday with the annual Maroon and White game. After 15 practices, there's plenty to take away, but here's five things we learned during the Aggies' spring:

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Donnie Baggs isn't the biggest guy -- or even the biggest linebacker -- on Texas A&M's defense.

But he might have the biggest load to carry this spring and fall for the Aggies. And it's a critical role, one that demands success if Texas A&M is to consider the 2013 season a success on defense.

[+] EnlargeDonnie Baggs
Sam Khan Jr./ESPNLinebacker Donnie Baggs is taking on a leadership role for the Aggies.
In many ways, Baggs' transition -- from reserve linebacker and spot starter last season to likely full-time starter at middle linebacker this season -- is indicative of what the entire group of Aggies linebackers are going through. Change.

Turn your eyes to that group on the Coolidge Grass Practice Fields this spring and what you see -- at least in terms of personnel -- is significantly different than what you would have seen at this time last year. A unit that was considered a strength coming into the 2012 season, with two experienced seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) leading the way is now a group in transition, with two new starters and several players who weren't even on the Texas A&M campus prior to January. And that includes the position coach, Mark Hagen, who is in his first year with the Aggies.

Earlier this spring, head coach Kevin Sumlin joked that he doesn't talk to Hagen much because Hagen's too busy melding all the new players together.

"I don't talk to him much because he's busy," Sumlin said with a laugh. "His plate's full, he's running around, he's meeting, he's chasing guys all over the place."

But the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Baggs is at the center of it all -- literally and figuratively. Not only is he responsible for getting acclimated to a new role, he's also the point man for getting the rest of the front seven lined up properly before the offense snaps the football. That task is easier for someone like Stewart, who was an experienced senior with plenty of football under his belt, than it is for Baggs, who has never been a regular starter.

(Read full post)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Going into the 2012 season, Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder could take some comfort in the fact that the Aggies' defense had experienced upperclassmen in key spots.

Two starting linebackers, both of whom emerged as leaders for the 11-2 Aggies, were seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart). So was the starting free safety (Steven Terrell) and one defensive tackle (Spencer Nealy). The player who emerged as the team's leader in several statistical categories was a junior and third-year letterman, Damontre Moore.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesCould Deshazor Everett become a leader for Texas A&M this season?
With all of those players gone, the Aggies are hunting for new leaders on their defense. Interestingly, it may come from the part of the defense that was the youngest last season: the secondary.

"Coming into the spring, we basically have been trying to find our new leaders," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "Vocal leaders, people that lead by example. We have a couple of people that are falling into that role. Donnie Baggs, Howard Matthews, Deshazor Everett and I've also been one of the people that are trying to step into this new role. We're trying to find new leaders for the defense and for the team next year."

Baggs is the first team middle linebacker -- the same position Stewart was in last year -- so his emergence is key. The new blood replacing the other departed seniors, and Moore, are all young or inexperienced or both.

Matthews, who started the Aggies' last four games at strong safety and played in 12, has probably made the biggest transformation. At the start of last season, he wasn't even on the two-deep. By season's end, he became a key player and this spring, Snyder and defensive backs coach Marcel Yates are looking to him to help others, like junior Floyd Raven, who has moved to free safety from cornerback.

(Read full post)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Moments after his team's first practice in pads and scrimmage on March 7, Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was thankful for at least one thing.

"The fortunate thing is we don't have to play tomorrow, thank goodness," he said. "We've got a ways to go."

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Sam Khan/ESPN.comMark Snyder has a lot of key players to replace on the Aggie defense.
Flashing back to his team's first practice in pads a year ago, the Aggies' second-year defensive coordinator could at least see some progress.

"We may be a little further along, but we still have a long way to go," he said.

What Snyder and the Aggies' defense accomplished last year was significant. There were numerous questions about that side of the football going into Texas A&M's 2012 season, namely depth across the board and in particular, the defensive line.

Those questions were answered throughout the year as Snyder's unit played above expectations. Damontre Moore broke out as a star at defensive end, the defensive line stayed mostly healthy and performed well in its first season in the SEC, a league known for line-of-scrimmage play. Players like Spencer Nealy and Kirby Ennis were strong on the interior line, while leadership came from linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart.

The result was a unit that was among the best in the nation on third down (16th), one of the better scoring defenses in the country (26th) and a unit that was solid against the run (35th).

Many of those key players are gone. Moore declared for the NFL draft; Nealy, Porter and Stewart were all seniors. A unit that may have been considered the weak link a year ago -- the secondary -- might actually be a strength this fall. The charge this year for Snyder and his staff is to reconstruct the front seven.

(Read full post)


There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat this for Texas A&M: The Aggies have become the hunted.

A year after the real training began for their official move to the SEC from the Big 12, the Aggies enter spring practice with loftier expectations and more eyes fixated on them. They can no longer be considered the supposed ragtag group that was expected to struggle for relevance in their new home.

After shocking their new conference mates with 11 wins, including one over eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, A&M enters spring figuratively glancing over its shoulder.

"Now that we know for a fact that we have enough talent and a new group of guys coming in, we know that this year we have a target on our back,” rising senior running back Ben Malena said. “The workouts have stepped up even more. The work ethic of the team collectively has stepped up even more. Coach [Kevin] Sumlin, he's let us know that last year's success was last year's success, but this year's success is gonna be even harder because now you have a target on your back."

Teams don’t lead the SEC in scoring (44.5 points per game), rushing (242.1 yards per game), passing (316.5 YPG) and total offense (558.5 YPG) in their first season in a new conference without feeling the heat in Year 2. And this league intends to bring more than just the heat to the Aggies.

If A&M is going to make strides in 2013, it has to push for conference supremacy. It'll have to be better than it was in 2012, and it'll have to pursue dethroning the mighty Crimson Tide. It's a tough job, but it really is the next step.

To do that, Sumlin and his crew will have to work even harder than they did last season. Players will have to be willing to sweat, bleed and push even more as the Aggies enter spring shorthanded once again.

[+] EnlargeLuke Joeckel
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M has to replace a number of starters on offense, including left tackle Luke Joeckel.
Johnny Manziel and his Heisman award-winning slipperiness returns, but he’ll be without five offensive starters from 2012, including left tackle Luke Joeckel, who could be a top-five pick in April’s NFL draft, and veteran receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches, 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Offensive coordinator and major Manziel mentor Kliff Kingsbury also left to become the head coach at Texas Tech.

Defensively, five starters from the front seven are gone, including All-America defensive end Damontre Moore and top-notch linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Dustin Harris and Steven Terrell must also be replaced in the secondary.

“We got a lot of young guys -- a bunch of new guys,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of his defense.

And those youngsters need to learn quickly because the injury bug attacked the defense this spring, especially up front. It’s a necessary evil, but getting young players these kinds of reps excites Snyder because it helps with depth, which the Aggies need.

Not only did A&M lose two valuable linebackers but a wide receiver was moved to the position this spring and linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt was replaced by Mark Hagen, giving the Aggies even more change to deal with.

"There will be some challenges there,” Snyder said about the new faces on defense, “but that's what makes spring ball fun."

What will also be fun is finding out who the new leaders are.

Senior Toney Hurd Jr., who is battling for a starting safety spot, has been pegged as one of those new leaders. He’s always led by example, and Hurd knows younger players are looking up to veterans like him. He’ll have to come through because, although the talent might be there, inexperience needs guidance.

"I wouldn't say I'll be this year's Sean Porter, but I'll be this year's Tony Hurd Jr.,” he said. “I'll give the vocal leadership when needed.”

Some interesting months lie ahead for the Aggies, as they look to make more upward moves in 2013. But before A&M can worry about challenging Alabama -- or anyone, really -- Sumlin needs his team to get better. He needs youngsters to take advantage of more reps and he needs the veterans to evolve on the field and in the locker room.

It sounds clichéd, but it's true.

To be elite again and embrace this new-found target on its back, A&M needs even more resolve and toughness in Year 2. And to Sumlin, it’ll be quite an uphill battle.

"We're nowhere near that stage,” he said. “I've said that from every standpoint, from every aspect of this program, we're still playing catch-up to everybody in the SEC.

"From my standpoint it's always a new team, it's always a new personality. As coaches, what you're trying to do is figure out where you are, who can do what and put them in the best position to try to win games."

Position breakdown: Linebacker 

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
1:30
PM ET
The Texas A&M linebacker corps served as a backbone for the Aggies defense in 2012.

With a trio of upperclassmen as starters, including two senior leaders in Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, it was one area the Aggies defensive coaches didn't have to worry too much about.

Brett Wade
William Wilkerson/ESPN.comCould early enrollee linebacker Brett Wade play as a freshman in 2013?
With Porter and Stewart having graduated and looking toward NFL futures, the Aggies will have two new bodies to line up next to the lone remaining starter of the group, Steven Jenkins.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SEC's DLs, LBs strong at combine

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
11:00
AM ET

Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites will look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins Friday in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Today: Defensive linemen and linebackers.

Texas A&M Aggies


Texas A&M's defense was a question mark coming into the 2012 season, but those questions were answered definitively as the Aggies became a solid defensive squad, thanks in large part to three players who will be participating in the combine:
  • DE Damontre Moore (Position rank: No. 4)
    Strengths: Explosiveness and production. Moore was a handful for opposing offensive tackles this year because of his quickness and explosiveness as a pass-rusher. He has good speed for his size and position; that could be seen against Mississippi State when he chased down receiver Chris Smith from behind on a 42-yard completion. He was near the top nationally in sacks and tackles for loss.
    Weaknesses: He can be too aggressive in his pursuit occasionally, although he has good instincts. A year ago, inconsistency might have been a concern and there also might have been character questions because of an arrest for marijuana possession before his sophomore season, but neither appear to be issues now. He seems to have matured and has become a consistent, day-in and day-out player under Kevin Sumlin.
    Comparison: Todd McShay compared Moore to Atlanta defensive end John Abraham. They have similar frames (both are 6-4, Abraham is about 15 pounds heavier than Moore's 248), and both are quick and fit well as 4-3 defensive ends.
  • OLB Sean Porter (Position rank: No. 12)
    Strengths: He's durable, reliable and became a leader for the Aggies. Showed good speed when serving as a pass-rusher in 2011. He is quick and can close quickly. Good instincts, versatile talent.
    Weaknesses: Doesn't excel in coverage, though he has showed improvement in that area. Could be a more physical player and more consistent overall.
    Comparison: Lance Briggs. About the same height as Porter, though a little bigger in weight, Briggs has good range and is a playmaker. It might be too much to say Porter will be at the level of Briggs (seven-time Pro Bowl player), but he should fit in nicely as a versatile starting weakside linebacker for someone.
  • LB Jonathan Stewart (Position rank: No. 16)
    Strengths: Smart player with good size for his position. Shows good instincts as he's often around the ball. Was one of the leaders on A&M's defense this year.
    Weaknesses: Not a dominant playmaking presence. Has speed but not tremendously explosive.
    Comparison: Kirk Morrison. Stewart should be a solid, though not flashy, linebacker in a 4-3 scheme which is what Morrison has been throughout his career with Oakland and Buffalo. Both are of similar size and frame.
-- Sam Khan Jr., GigEmNation

Florida Gators


The heart of the Gators’ 2012 defense will participate in the combine today. DT Sharrif Floyd, whose stock is rising rapidly as he is projected to be taken as high as No. 3, had a fantastic season and anchored UF’s front. He dominated Florida State’s front, and his mixture of size, strength and quickness has scouts drooling. ILB Jon Bostic started every game the past two seasons and was UF’s leader on defense. Nobody was more dependable than Bostic. OLB Jelani Jenkins was limited in 2012 because of a broken finger, a strained hamstring and a broken foot, but when healthy he’s a solid player. OLB Lerentee McCray was forced into action at the buck position (hybrid end/linebacker) because of the injury to Ronald Powell. He didn’t produce big numbers but was a high-effort, high-motor guy.

(Read full post)

Signing day primer: Texas A&M 

January, 23, 2013
1/23/13
8:00
AM ET
Team needs: There are three key need areas for Texas A&M in this recruiting class: defensive tackles, linebackers and receivers. The defensive tackle need stems from the Aggies' scheme switch. The 2010 and 2011 seasons were spent in a 3-4 alignment, and recruiting was tailored to that. Once Kevin Sumlin arrived and hired Mark Snyder as his defensive coordinator, the Aggies switched to a 4-3, meaning another defensive tackle on the field, meaning more were needed. At linebacker, the Aggies say goodbye to a pair of senior leaders, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, both of whom were starters. The other starting linebacker, Steven Jenkins, will be a senior this season. At receiver there are several contributors leaving as well. Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Kenric McNeal were all seniors. Thomas Johnson, a true freshman who appeared in 10 games and was one of the gems of the 2012 recruiting class, withdrew from school and might not return. There's another scholarship spot at the position in the form of Brandal Jackson, who was on scholarship but not part of the 105-man roster at the start of fall camp.

Help is on the way: At defensive tackle, A&M scored commitments from ESPN 150 defensive tackle Justin Manning and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Isaiah Golden. Three-star prospect Hardreck Walker and three-star Jordan Points (who is already on campus) round out that group. There are six linebackers in the class, led by ESPN 300 ILB Jordan Mastrogiovanni. Three are already on campus and enrolled: Brett Wade, Reggie Chevis and Tommy Sanders. At receiver, the Aggies have plenty. Ricky Seals-Jones tops the list, prep school standout Ja'Quay Williams is already in school, and there's a pair of three-star receivers as well. Not to mention, No. 1 tight end prospect Derrick Griffin would be a receiver at A&M if he makes it in, and athlete LaQuvionte Gonzalez likely would be an inside receiver.

Other key commits: A pair of Under Armour All-Americans, guard Joas Aguilar and cornerback Noel Ellis, plus a U.S. Army All-American, safety Kameron Miles, round out a group 10 prospects that are among ESPN's top 300. Two quarterbacks are in the class (Kohl Stewart and Kenny Hill), but it's worth keeping an eye on them as Stewart is a potential high MLB draft pick and Hill took official visits to Baylor and Kansas State. Eight early enrollees in the class are already on campus (Chevis, Points, Sanders, Wade, Williams, Cameron Clear, Alex Sezer and Jeremiah Stuckey), and there are plenty of promising three-star commits, including guys like cornerback Tavares Garner and outside linebacker Darian Claiborne.

Other key targets: There aren't a ton of targets left for the Aggies at this point. Their focus is on a small handful of guys. Adding a defensive end would be ideal for the Aggies, and they're pursuing Washington commit Daeshon Hall and USC commit Torrodney Prevot in that regard. Hall visited recently, and Prevot could soon. They are also still looking at another receiver. Former USC commit Sebastian LaRue is one of those targets, and he was in on an official visit recently. They are also looking at Florida State commit Levonte Whitfield, who said he plans to officially visit Feb. 1.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

GigEmNation writer Sam Khan Jr. chatted with readers on Friday about Texas A&M football and recruiting. Here's the full transcript of the chat. Topics covered included Jake Matthews' return, the promotion of Clarence McKinney to co-offensive coordinator and playcaller and of course, recruiting. Here's an excerpt from Friday's chat:

Drew (Colleyville, TX): So with Jake Matthews coming back does this mean he will be moved over to LT? And if so who do you think will be the RT next year? And who do we have on the C depth chart that can take over? Thanks for the chats!
Sam Khan Jr.: Drew, yes, Matthews will be moved to LT. That should be a good transition for him and I think he'll do well. As for right tackle, I think you're looking a few possibilities: redshirt freshman Joseph Cheek, who backed up Matthews and played in the "unbalanced line" power running formations could be an option. True freshman Germain Ifedi, who was on the two-deep, is an option. And I wouldn't rule out moving someone out to right tackle that's already in the lineup (maybe RG Cedric Ogbuehi?). As for center, Mike Matthews, the younger brother of Jake Matthews, will be the heir apparent to Patrick Lewis. Matthews is the favorite to start and was the backup this year. Look for him to be a possible three-year starter at C for the Aggies.

(Read full post)

Film Review: Cotton Bowl edition 

January, 7, 2013
1/07/13
3:00
PM ET
Johnny ManzielMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel scrambles for a touchdown in the first quarter of the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma.

Texas A&M capped off its memorable first season as a Southeastern Conference member with a dominant 41-13 win over No. 11 Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl on Friday. The win gave the No. 9 Aggies an 11-2 record for the season and assured that they will finish with a top-10 ranking for the first time since 1994. Here's a look at three plays that helped the Aggies finish on the winning side against the Sooners:

Situation: Texas A&M ball, third-and-9 at the Oklahoma 23 (12:33 left, first quarter).
Score: Texas A&M 0, Oklahoma 0.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Grading the positions: Linebackers 

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
4:45
PM ET
In the weeks leading up to Texas A&M's bowl game, GigEmNation will take a look back at how the Aggies performed position by position and give each group a grade based on that performance. Today, we look at the linebackers.

GradeHighlights: This was one of the most experienced position groups on the team, with seniors (Sean Porter, Jonathan Stewart) and a junior (Steven Jenkins) starting. Stewart led the group in tackles with 72 (good for second on the team). Porter was a leader and a playmaker (5.5 tackles for loss) and brought a sense of urgency to the defense and the team, which was important to the Aggies' success. Jenkins (70 tackles, five tackles for loss) was also a playmaker who came up big on several occasions. Sophomore Donnie Baggs, who played in 11 of 12 games and started one, was a capable reserve who earned the trust of the coaching staff. He collected 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in part-time duty.

Lowlights: Jenkins was suspended for a game for a "violation of team rules" over the summer. He ended up sitting out the Louisiana Tech game. There were some games where stopping the run was an issue (the Aggies yielded 219 yards on the ground to LSU, 165 to Louisiana Tech and 159 to Mississippi come to mind).

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Sumlin Interested To See New QBs
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin breaks down his team's quarterback competition and some of the other young prospects the Aggies have heading into this season.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
Saturday, 8/30
Sunday, 8/31